When producers of CBS's hit drama CSI: Miami considered locales for the first episode of the new season, Rio de Janeiro was a natural. The Brazilian megalopolis--a city associated with drugs and danger--was a place where Lieutenant Horatio Caine (David Caruso) could plausibly go to solve his wife's murder, the crime that concluded last season. But it was also a good business move to film the opener in South America, where millions of loyal viewers watch each week. "We have a responsibility to embrace these markets where we get so much support," says Caruso, who spent a week in Rio for the shoot. "More and more, I'm realizing our show has a constituency outside the United States that we should be aware of in our story lines."
Whether it's Brazil, China or Russia, it's tough to find a television market where CSI: Miami is not on the prime-time schedule. Although the two other shows in producer Jerry Bruckheimer's franchise--CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and CSI: New York--are also hits, the lush, exotic backdrop of Miami coupled with its high-tech whodunit forensics have made Miami the most popular TV drama on the planet. More than 40 million viewers a week tune in compared with 18 million in the U.S. It's Top 10 in most countries where it airs.
Dazzling though it is, CSI: Miami is just one of a number of American shows that are driving the rebound of U.S. television globally. After years of shunning American programming (post-Baywatch's worldwide success) or relegating it to insomnia-challenged time slots in favor of locally made fare, foreign networks are bringing their checkbooks and appetites to the U.S. with a gusto that hasn't been seen in years. Foreign rights should ring up about $3 billion for U.S. producers this year.
In part, the expansion of satellite and cable channels throughout the world has vastly increased the need for more content, any content. But inspired by the performance last year of hits such as Lost, 24, Desperate Housewives and, of course, CSI, foreign buyers are also ponying up higher prices for this fall's new shows, in some cases paying 50% to 75% more for an American drama than they did three years ago. "These new shows have raised the bar for programming around the world and increased the provenance of American TV," says 20th Century Fox Television president Gary Newman.
Ironically, the success that American shows are experiencing internationally is an outgrowth of the fierce competition for audiences at home. As networks have competed for a shrinking piece of the viewer pie, executives have pushed writers and producers to think more imaginatively and outside the box. The result is a bumper crop of one-hour dramas, such as Lost and 24. "This is the golden age of American television," says Newman.